The Vilna Lerer Seminar, or, Ester's
return to Vilna
Yiddish at 9 A.M., Yiddish at mid-morning, Yiddish for lunch, Yiddish in the early afternoon, Yiddish in the late afternoon, and Yiddish for an evening activity, where our courses were supplemented by lectures on Vilna. This past May, I attended a two-week intensive course, from May 8th to 20th, for teachers of Yiddish in Vilna, Lithuania. Despite hesitations about my proficiency in Yiddish, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity. My first trip to Vilna was three years ago, when I attended the summer course for students of Yiddish. [See Ester's article, "Vilna, Summer 2002," in the Jan./Feb. 2003 issue of Outlook. - eds.]
The May 2005 course was the first Yiddish Teacher's course to be held in Vilna since the early 1930s, when the "Lerer Seminar" (Teacher's Seminar), consisting of a five-year programme to train teachers for the folkshules and the Gymnasia [high school], was last held. The Teacher's Seminar was founded in 1921, under the directorship of Abraham Golomb, with a faculty that included the poet Moishe Kulbak, Max Weinreich, the historian Dr. Heller, and a music programme led by Yakov Gershtein, with visits by writers Itzhik Manger and Joseph Opatoshu. The government of Poland ordered the Teacher's Seminar closed in 1932-a catastrophic blow to those idealistic students devoted to secular Yiddish culture. Memories of the school in the 1920s paint a picture of an extraordinarily rich world, where the school was a society in itself and the enthusiasm was contagious. Music, theatre, and sport played a central role, and both students and teachers were caught up in their visions for transforming the world-whether through the Bund, as Communists, or as Labour Zionists.
The school was not funded by the government, and most students were too poor to pay tuition. Bluma Katz, now one hundred years old and living in Svientsany, recalls how the students subsisted on herring and black bread, counting the herrings that would have to be eaten until graduation, and hopefully employment. Through the Purim Plays directed by Moishe Kulbak that they performed each year, the students managed to gather together enough money so that the entire class could go on an excursion to the Baltic sea or the Carpathian mountains. One memoir by Arthur Lermer of Montreal recalls Kulbak's wonderful teaching style, and how sad the students were when he departed for the Soviet Union in 1928 (where he was later murdered by Stalin in 1937, in the 1936-38 purges). Arthur Lermer also remembers the Purim Players Kulbak organized, and the Saturday afternoons spent listening to arias performed by a Russian teacher, Nalkovski, as he accompanied himself on the piano and lectured on opera to a full hall. Lermer also recalls Kulbak's close friendship with the beloved music teacher, Yakov Gershtein, who directed a fine choir at the school-one of the two Yiddish choirs in Vilna. (Gershtein was later murdered by the Nazis.)
The new 2005 teacher's program, funded by the Righteous Persons Foundation, gathered thirty of us, from many different countries with many different histories, at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, under the directorship of Dovid Katz, one of the most knowledgeable Yiddishists in the world. The development of a Yiddish teacher's course in Vilna, while it can't be considered a continuation of what existed in the 1920s, is nevertheless a wonderful undertaking. The energy and imagination that went into creating a centre for Yiddish in this historic place is impressive.
The group was divided into two, and we each attended four classes daily, taught by four teachers. Pedagogy and Yiddish literature were taught by Miriam Hoffman of Columbia University. We enjoyed her unique techniques for getting beginning students of Yiddish to fall in love with the language, as well as her collection of Yiddish stories for beginners. Each student was assigned a story to relate to the class-and amongst us emerged hidden thespian talents. Yitzkhok Niborski, the Argentinian-born Yiddish teacher now living in Paris, taught us the finer points of grammar, in four weeks devoted to the nuances of converbs.1 Those in the class really qualified to be Yiddish teachers admired and respected his erudition and learned a great deal. I must confess that, although I share their respect for Chaver Niborski, I don't even know grammar in my native tongue, and so, alas, was a miserable failure at converbs. A third class in poetry was taught by Dov Ber Kerler, the son of the Soviet Poet Joseph Kerler, and an academic who teaches at the University of Indiana. He assembled a broad selection of poetry for us. The high points were presentations by the members of the class reciting and analyzing a poem of their choice.
One of the draws for my return to Vilna was the oppportunity to visit with my hostess and friend, Leah Jacovskiene, and her daughter, the artist Alexandra Jacovskyte, who billeted me in 2002. Leah is one of a handful of Yiddish speakers from one of the few Jewish families still living in Vilna. Orginally from Wilkomir, her older sister went to gymnasia with Leybl Basman in the 1920s-small world! 2 This return trip felt like returning to my adopted family in their beautiful house, quite bare except for essentials-the original art on the walls, and the books.
I arrived in Vilna in time for the celebrations of the end of World War II and the liberation from the camps. Leah took me along for one of the simchas [celebrations] in the Jewish community. Funded by the American Joint Distribution Committee, this event was part of my Vilna education. Apparently there are now two rabbis, both U.S. imports. One is a Lubavitcher who has proclaimed himself Chief Rabbi of Vilna. Ah-but now the community has invited another rabbi, who claims his family is descended from the Vilna Gaon. This rabbi, also Orthodox, and apparently more popular, was at the celebration and addressed the gathering in Yiddish. The dispute between the two has resulted in the closing of the Choral Synagogue, the only remaining synagogue in the city.
The tables in the community hall were spread with food, wine, juice, and vodka . The main language spoken was not Yiddish or Lithuanian, but Russian, and a presentation by a group of children was in Russian. Men and women came dressed up for the occasion, many with rows of their World War II medals displayed on their chests. I was struck by the incongruity of the revival of the Vilna Jewish community through the leadership of an Orthodox rabbi, as most of the Jewish survivors were secular. I guess it's the funding that counts, and these people are not wealthy. What impressed me about this gathering was that it truly was a simcha. Despite the tragic histories of almost every one of the people present, they knew how to enjoy themselves. They ate, drank, sang Russian songs, and danced (me too!) when the Russian songs were played on the CD player. They did more than just survive-they lived!.
When I think about my trip to Vilna, I think of my friends there-Leah, her daughter, and the students in my class. Students came from Moscow, Ukraine, Australia, England, Italy, Poland, the United States, Canada-and my list is incomplete. One young woman in my class, Agnieszka from Cracow, Poland, insisted on taking home a picture of the two of us together. She said that I could be the twin of her mother-in-law, who indeed comes from an area close to where my mother was born. This young woman was a tour guide in the Jewish area of Cracow when she learned that she herself was a Jew. Now immersed in Jewish studies, she is doing her doctorate at Columbia University.
I was particularly happy to meet Kolya from Birobidjan,
the Jewish "Autonomous Region" in the Soviet Union. Born in
Birobidjan, and now the Director of Education for the Arbeiter Ring in
New York, Kolya learned his Yiddish as an adult at Columbia University
during the Glasnost period, when "nationalism," or Jewish identity,
was becoming acceptable in the Soviet Union. While Kolya acknowledges
the decent education and opportunities the Soviet regime provided, support
for Yiddish and Jewish identity was not on the list.
|[back to top] [write a letter to the editor]|